DA and Trial Judge Agree Texas Should Reverse Melissa Lucio’s Conviction and Death Sentence


When police accused Melissa Lucio of killing her two-year-old daughter, Mariah, she explained that the toddler had fallen down the stairs two days earlier. Mariah’s older siblings confirmed that account, but their statements were not disclosed to the defense, and Ms. Lucio was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008. Now, after she came within two days of being executed, the district attorney has admitted—and the trial judge has agreed—that the prosecutor’s illegal withholding of critical exculpatory evidence requires that Ms. Lucio’s conviction be overturned.

After Mariah died at a local hospital, police assumed that bruises on her body were evidence of abuse and interrogated her distraught mother late into the night.

Ms. Lucio explained that her daughter had fallen down the stairs, but after more than five hours of intense questioning, interrogators eventually obtained an ambiguous admission that prosecutors then used to obtain Ms. Lucio’s conviction and death sentence in 2008.

While Ms. Lucio was being interrogated by police, a child welfare investigator interviewed Mariah’s older siblings, who corroborated their mother’s account that Mariah had fallen down the stairs two days earlier. One of Mariah’s older siblings saw her fall down the stairs.

The siblings said the bruises were “from when she fell,” the Intercept reported, and they told Child Protective Services that their mother was very worried about Mariah’s condition after the fall. They also said their mother had never abused Mariah or any of her children.

Then-Cameron County District Attorney Armando Villalobos, whose re-election challenger accused him of being soft on child abusers, withheld the siblings’ statements from Ms. Lucio’s defense. Her lawyer had never before handled a death penalty case and went to work for the DA immediately after the trial, according to the Intercept. 

Ms. Lucio’s jury never heard the siblings’ statements.

Ms. Lucio recanted her coerced confession and maintained her innocence. But even after a veteran forensic pathologist found the medical evidence was entirely consistent with an accidental fall, prosecutors relentlessly defended the conviction.

After the State obtained an execution date in 2022, doubts about the reliability of the case mounted. A bipartisan group consisting of more than half of the Texas House called on the DA to withdraw the date and when he refused, asked the state parole board to stop Ms. Lucio’s execution.

Two days before she was to be put to death, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Ms. Lucio’s petition for a stay and ordered the trial court to consider several claims raised by her defense team, including whether the prosecutor’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence had violated her constitutional right to a fair trial.

Nine months later, current Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz quietly but completely changed course and signed a joint filing with the defense admitting that the prosecution had illegally suppressed exculpatory evidence, including the CPS reports and sworn statements from Ms. Lucio’s children.

“There are uncontroverted facts and the parties agree” that there was a “reasonable probability” that the outcome of the trial “would have been different had the evidence been disclosed,” the lawyers wrote

Mr. Saenz agreed that, but for the prosecution’s illegal suppression of favorable evidence, Ms. Lucio likely would not have been convicted. As a result, he told the trial court, her conviction should now be overturned.

On April 12, Cameron County Judge Arturo Nelson—the same judge who presided at Ms. Lucio’s trial—signed the Agreed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law submitted by the prosecution and defense, stating that the suppression of exculpatory evidence was a constitutional error. 

The judge recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Ms. Lucio’s conviction and death sentence be overturned.

“I’m so glad that we did what we did two years ago to step up and—let’s not mince words—to stop the state from murdering Melissa Lucio,” Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican lawmaker who advocated for Ms. Lucio, told The Texas Tribune.

The Court of Criminal Appeals is the only court that can vacate a conviction under Texas procedure, Ms. Lucio’s counsel and Mr. Saenz said in a joint statement, adding: “We are hopeful that Melissa’s case will be resolved.”